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Starry-eyed Robishaw finds Top 40

Astrophysicist Tim Robishaw looks over a globe which is actually a three-dimensional view of the universe at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory at White Lake. Robishaw is this week’s Top 40 Under 40 recipient.  - Mark Brett/Western News
Astrophysicist Tim Robishaw looks over a globe which is actually a three-dimensional view of the universe at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory at White Lake. Robishaw is this week’s Top 40 Under 40 recipient.
— image credit: Mark Brett/Western News

Dr. Tim Robishaw loves talking about his job but when he doesn’t want to, the 38-year-old has found a very effective way to avoid unwanted conversations with strangers.

“For example, when you’re on a plane and you sit down and there is someone really chatty next to you and they say, ‘Hi my name’s so and so and what do you do?’ I just say, ‘astrophysicist’ and they leave you alone, end of conversation,” said Robishaw who really is an astrophysicist at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO) in White Lake and this week’s recipient of the Top 40 Under 40 honours.

“As soon as you say that to them right away they start thinking Einstein and that big white coat.”

But even when he feels like chatting, telling people instead that he is an astronomer (supposedly a little less intimidating) the reaction to that can also be quite amusing.

“In that case about half the people will say, ‘Oh that’s great, I’m an Aries,’ and the other half will say, ‘What does that mean?’ but at least they feel there is a little more common ground and a chance to have a reasonable conversation. It’s funny what that subtle difference can make.”

While Robishaw, who grew up in Boston, Mass., and moved to the Okanagan in 2011, agreed many people see scientists, rocket and otherwise, as somewhat “socially challenged” he pointed out many of his colleagues have a great sense of humour.

Another very necessary skill in his line of work and one which he believes earned him the nomination for Top 40 under 40 recognition, is his entrepreneurial talents, not something most people would expect from a researcher who delves into radio wave information from galaxies in the universe many millions of light years away from our own.

“I guess as a scientist we don’t often consider ourselves in the business realm but in reality the endeavour of science really is a pretty entrepreneurial feat,” said Robishaw.

“The notion of taking risks and using resources in order to try new endeavours is pretty much almost the definition of entrepreneurship.

“You have to come up with some sort of experiment to find a fundamental truth about the universe which is very much like business.”

The people he and others in his line of work have to sell to are those who dole out the time for the use of some of the largest telescopes in the world.

“So it’s a 100 per cent sales,” said Robishaw. “Every single telescope on earth is oversubscribed, so if you don’t do a good sales job about why you deserve the time over everybody else, you’re not going to get it.

“When your business is using a telescope to try and understand the universe and that opportunity only comes around on a yearly basis you have be very good at sales.”

If he had any questions about his sales ability, they were answered early on in his career when he managed to submit a successful bid for the use of the world’s largest telescope (305 metres) in Puerto Rico when he was doing his thesis for his doctorate.

When he is not doing his regular job at the DRAO, Robishaw likes to spend his spare time showing people around the facility and showing them that what really goes on behind the rows of radio telescopes is not something secret or to be feared.

“It’s really important to let people know what we do up here, we’re not looking for little green men, we’re not looking for aliens it doesn’t mean they’re not out there but we’re trying to find some fundamental things, answers to the kinds of questions everyone has,” he said.

When he does have a little spare time, Robishaw likes to do a bit of hiking, play some music or just hang with the many friends he’s made since moving here.

“Oh, yeah, I also like to learn how to pronounce things the Canadian Way,” he added.

Eh?

In the coming months he has a couple of long, work-related  road trips ahead of him, including one to France and another to Italy so there is a pretty good chance some of his fellow passengers will find themselves sitting next to a sleeping astrophysicist.

Penticton Top 40 under 40 is presented by the Prospera Credit Union and White Kennedy LLP Chartered Accountants in partnership with the Penticton and Wine Country Chamber of Commerce, JCI Penticton with support from Community Futures Okanagan Similkameen.

Nominations should be sent to manager@penticton.org with the subject line ‘Top 40 Nomination.’

Please include nominees contact info and a brief reason for nomination.

 

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